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Jim Jones’ Sons Speak Out in ABC’s 40th Anniversary Jonestown Documentary
On November 18, 1978, 909 members of the Peoples Temple living in the Jonestown settlement in Guyana consumed a deadly, cyanide-laced drink. They did so on the orders of the cult’s leader, Jim Jones.
The massacre was the largest loss of U.S. civilian life in a single, deliberate act until 9/11.
Ahead of the 40th anniversary of the tragedy, ABC is releasing a special, Truth and Lies: Jonestown, which airs September 28 at 8 p.m. Eastern. The special features new interviews with Jones’s two surviving sons, who open up about the haunting massacre brought about by their megalomaniacal father’s religious group.
“He was dark, a handsome man,” Stephan Jones says in a trailer for the special, exclusively premiering on Esquire.com. “The man had charisma.”
“Dad, like any good demagogue, would conjure up fear,” he adds.
Jones and his wife, Marceline Jones, seated in front of their adopted children and next to his sister-in-law (right) with her three children in California in 1976.
Getty ImagesDon Hogan Charles
Stephan was not at the settlement when the incident occurred. According to The Washington Post, Stephan, then 19, was with the Jonestown basketball team at a tournament about 150 miles away. He ended up spending three months in jail, until being cleared of involvement in the crime.
“I think I’d probably be pretty messed up if I hadn’t lost everybody I had and hadn’t gone through the prison experience,” Stephan told the newspaper in 1983. “I mellowed out.”
Stephan is the only biological child of Jones and his wife, Marceline Baldwin Jones, per The Atlantic. The couple adopted several children of different ethnicities, which they referred to as their “rainbow family.”
Jones raises his fist in a black power salute while preaching at an unknown location.
In the new ABC special, Jim Jones Jr. says, “I was the first African American child adopted by Caucasians in Indiana and [my father] always reminded me of that.” He says his father often referred to him as “my adopted black son.”
He was 18, and also at the basketball tournament, when the massacre happened.
Dead bodies lie around the compound of the People’s Temple cult on November 18, 1978.
Getty ImagesDavid Hume Kennerly
Jones formed the Peoples Temple in Indianapolis, Indiana, in the mid-1950s. He had a motto, which he said the church stood for: “Divine principles. Total equality. A society where people own all things in common, where there is no rich or poor, where there are no races.”
After intense scrutiny from the media, he relocated with his wife, seven children, and followers to San Francisco and eventually to the jungles of Guyana. He preached about building a utopia—a remote settlement which became known as “Jonestown”—free of violence, racism, sexism, and classism.
But Jonestown turned out to be far from perfect. His followers worked in fields and were harshly punished if they questioned Jones or the Peoples Temple. Over time, Jones became increasingly paranoid, thinking the media and the government were targeting him.
Getty ImagesMichelle VIGNES
In November 1978, a delegation including Reps. Leo Ryan and Jackie Speier visited Jonestown with a news crew in an attempt to assist people who may have been held against their will. As the group boarded planes to leave, they were shot at by several temple members. Five people died, including Rep. Ryan. Later, Jones commanded his over 900 followers to drink a cyanide-laced punch and commit what he called a “revolutionary act.”
The tragedy has been called both a mass suicide and a mass murder. Photographs taken afterwards show a gruesome scene: the bodies of hundreds of people, including children, lying face down in the grass and dirt. Jones was found dead with a gunshot wound to the head.
The new ABC special features rare video, audiotapes, diaries, letters, and FBI documents that have been declassified in the past decade and provide new insight into what happened.